Classical music has benefitted so much from the contributions of so many composers who identified - either in public or private - as LGBT+ over centuries, from Handel to John Cage who I mentioned last week. Over the rest of February, I will be recommending the work of five composers (including the first article to focus on a single composer) and even then I will only be scratching the surface. Today we focus on two American contemporaries: Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. Barber is well known for his “Adagio for Strings” which is so heartbreakingly melancholic, not in the least because of its association with the funeral of JFK, but today I’ll present a different slow piece by him that deserves to be just as popular. Barber was in a life-long partnership with another Pulitzer-prize winning composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, whose work is pleasant, but quite similar to Barber. Leonard Bernstein is perhaps more famous for debatably the best musical of all time, West Side Story. However, as well as being one of the greatest conductors of all time, he was an established Classical composer, writing three symphonies. I’ll present a work of his that fuses the best of both his tastes, written for the great Jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman.
Barber - Andante from Violin Concerto
Unusually for a concerto, which focuses on a single instrument, this opens with an oboe solo over soft, paired-down strings that is just sublimely tragic. That melody is then taken up by the cellos, and even a high horn, before the violin enters in at barely a whisper. The trumpet warns in the background of a much more agitated middle section, where the entire orchestra plays the beginning melody in unison, with the solo instrument actually taking second place. Slow music can often be seen as boring, but when it’s as beautiful and as expertly composed as this, it is really worth it. The other movements are worth checking out too- the third movement is one of the hardest pieces in the violin repertoire.
Bernstein - Prelude Fugue and Riffs
Is it Classical? Is it Jazz? Whatever it is, it’s incredibly inventive. Written for a jazz band, rather than an orchestra, it takes the Baroque forms of an introductory Prelude and then a Fugue (multiple instruments developing the same theme at different times), with a purely Jazz idea of building on short ideas called riffs. Both the prelude and fugue have off-beat rhythms mainly seen in Jazz, but strange classical harmony that’s not unlike the Rite of Spring that started this column in the first place. In fact, it was composed for the same band that had earlier premiered Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, also written for Jazz band. Both works show just how exciting the seemingly odd combination of classical music and a big band can be.